Trump's slow staff 'shakeup' stunts 2019 planning

The president has left top officials in a state of limbo and top jobs without permanent occupants, creating 'a sense of chaos.'

President Donald Trump is still looking for a new United Nations ambassador. He has no deputy national security adviser. His attorney general and Environmental Protection Agency administrator are serving in acting capacities, and his constant badmouthing of his chief of staff and secretary of Homeland Security has undermined their authority.

The president once openly signaled a plan to revamp his Cabinet and staff after the midterm elections, calling it a “very customary” act — and his aides acknowledged that big changes might be coming. But while he demanded the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions the day after last month’s midterm elections, the once-breathless anticipation of his next personnel move has stretched into a long and awkward waiting game.

The result is an administration in a holding pattern. Trump has offered almost nothing in the way of a legislative vision for 2019 beyond approval of a new trade deal and vague references to infrastructure. His only clear priority is enforcing border security. The White House has even sent mixed signals about its desire to fight for a criminal justice reform bill that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, played a key role in shaping.

While many presidents shake up their Cabinets after their first two years, Trump has turned what might have been a natural transition point into a monthslong ordeal that has left many advisers in limbo, inhibiting their ability to prepare for the next two years, according to senior Trump officials and experts on the presidency.

“I think Trump likes to make nominations into kind of a reality-TV show moment; he likes to keep people sitting on the edge of their seats. ‘Are you in or are you out?’ ‘Are you hired or fired?’” said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley. “But it creates a sense of chaos in the administration.”

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Trump’s ability to restock senior administration posts faces several limitations, including the continued reluctance of many experienced Republicans to work for him. The hunt for a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations has been hamstrung by concerns about the qualifications of several candidates.

Making things more difficult is the intervention of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has warned the president against plucking any members from his caucus, which will hold a 53-47 majority. Asked by The Associated Press about the next attorney general this fall, McConnell was unequivocal: “It’s not going to come from our caucus, I can tell you that.”

McConnell’s stance is driven by what’s widely seen as a disastrous transition period in 2016 for Republicans, when Trump tapped GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions to be his attorney general and Montana GOP Rep. Ryan Zinke for Interior secretary. The GOP lost Sessions’ seat and failed to unseat Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), whom many Republicans felt Zinke could have defeated. Trump also rebuffed McConnell’s advice that he find a Cabinet post for Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who went on to win reelection in a state in which many Republicans believe they could have won an open seat.

McConnell’s hands-off edict also puts off-limits candidates whom Trump has previously considered for Cabinet posts, including Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a potential replacement for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a potential replacement for both Mattis and Sessions. Trump interviewed Cotton to be his Pentagon chief during the presidential transition before ultimately tapping Mattis for the job and has developed a close relationship with Graham over the past two years.

Despite pressure from Senate Republicans, the president shows no sense of urgency to name a permanent successor to Sessions, believing that the acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, can legally hold his post for several more months without facing a Senate vote. But an earlier replacement for the controversial Whitaker would soothe nerves in the GOP caucus.

“Sooner the better,” said Graham, who added that the Senate likely could not confirm a new attorney general before early next year.

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